Guest commentary

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I was so angry, wild with fatigue, that I lifted my ugly drug store cane intending to destroy my employer’s computer printer. This was in California’s Silicon Valley. The printer was networked to nine computers. After a late night writing a portion of a manual on silicon wafer inspection, I commanded the computer to print.

After I weaved my way to the printer (seemingly miles away from the computer), there was no document. Five trips back and forth (nothing each time) and my level of frustration caught up to my level of exhaustion. My control was at the breaking point.

Six months previously, I had lost my ability to walk. The concepts I was writing about were hard to understand even when I had been healthy and well-rested. My ability to physically support my body was shaky. I fell several times a day. My right arm had been badly dislocated in a fall. What I needed was a fore-arm crutch with properly-fitted prosthetics or a scooter. My doctors focused on understanding how I lost the ability to walk and little on how I could live without walking.

Mortgage payments were due. Home was North Carolina where a wife and two elementary-school-aged children waited. The local economy determined technical writers were not currently needed. At the same time (1996), California needed my skills as of yesterday and I was promptly hired for KLA, a company paying large sums to do fascinating work.

I did not break the printer. I drove to my apartment, slept and thumbed the yellow pages praying for relief. I did not know what I was looking for. After a while, I left a voice mail with a dealer in wheelchairs and scooters (not knowing then what a scooter was). That is how I purchased my first mobility device.

Scott returned my call and listened to my situation. We talked price. He recommended a used front-wheel drive scooter. I was skeptical. “Let me show you how it works,” he said, crossed town quickly and lifted a scooter from his truck. I sat down and drove circles around the empty street. My able-bodied college friend David Phillips, in whose house I had an apartment, was fascinated. Keeping David from driving my scooter was hard.

I had discovered three important things about mobility devices:

  • They are fun.
  • They take away the drudgery of not being able to walk.
  • They remove the image that that I am someone who is to be pitied.

I arrived at KLA, having:

  • Given Scott a down payment (the beginning of many, mostly personal, expenditures, on equipment, including rear-wheel  drive scooters, power chairs, wheelchair lifts and ramps)
  • Taken the scooter apart myself and shakily inserted the parts into the trunk
  • Slid sidewise hugging the Pontiac’s body
  • Reversed the process

My colleagues applauded. I had solved a physical problem with a technical solution and in the Silicon Valley that was worthy of commendation.

As I look back on the past 14 years, especially worthy of commendation are you, the suppliers of DMEPOS. My time with you here is almost up. Traditionally a column is about 750 words. I have used most of them. A 750-word column can express effectively only one major idea. That idea is that you, the medical suppliers, and people like me, your customers, are a family.

We are a family surviving in a world where David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s former budget director, said in November on ABC News that the United States can no longer afford to provide its disabled citizens with “scooters.” As competitive bidding illustrates, clearly a bipartisan effort is underway to make it difficult for the disabled to receive mobility and other DMEPOS devices and for you, our local medical suppliers, to get paid for them or even to stay in business.

The pain is especially felt by indigent consumers and small suppliers. In this month where every day is Valentine’s Day, it is helpful to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin (an amorous man if ever there was one) on the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Joel Solkoff is a monthly columnist on disability- and elderly-related issues for Voices in State College, Pa. He is the author of three books, including The Politics of Food and Learning to Live Again: My Triumph Over Cancer. He served in the Carter Administration as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Labor. He has a bipartisan loathing of anyone trying to keep assistive technology from individuals with disabilities—a loathing he is trying to turn into corrective love.